When a documentary about motor racing gets a prime slot on the Today programme, and a 4/5* review in the Guardian you can guess it's something special. Thinking it may be all hype, I approached it with scepticism. The conclusion is that whilst it is definitely not a full and accurate life history of Senna, it is probably the most engaging and enthralling piece of drama I have seen in a long time and well worth a visit to the local fleapit/multiscreen.
The film is classed as a documentary, but that undersells it. If you've seen “dramatised documentaries” on TV, this is the opposite. Extracts from contemporary films are seamlessly combined to form a narrative with good guys, baddies, love interest and cars. But don't go to it just for the cars.
To those of us who saw Senna racing in British F3 or even FF, it seems so recent, and this is where the first shock comes. The early film is just appalling quality. Grainy Super8, breaking up VHS video with dubious colours, I began to wonder whether they couldn't have tried a bit harder to find good quality copies, or perhaps this is what we put up with watching BBC Grand Prix in 1984. Rapidly, the quality issue is soon forgotten as the drama unfolds, but the fact Senna's F1 career started 27 years ago is demonstrated not just by grainy film but in the different manners of the time, and the absence of the dreadful corporatism that now poisons modern F1. And also in the cars. Crude fasteners, origami-like tubs, wishbones which look (and are) more like a Brabham BT21 than a Dallara all give a real period feel. Having said all this, the in-car is quite stunning. Whether it's just because it was on a big screen, I don't know, but watching Senna handling, or fighting, the car and opposite locking as a matter of course, -head banging about, hands a blur - was breathtaking. Equally the in-car at Imola on the last lap of his life almost brings tears to the hardest of racers.
As this film is essentially a drama without actors, let's treat it as a drama. The hero is Senna: quiet, deep, focused and brilliant. It was interesting to see how often he referred to his religious beliefs. His adversary is of course Prost. If you're looking for Mansell, wait for the DVD and hover over the pause button. Prost is the establishment: political, ultimately doomed to defeat (in this interpretation) and the enemy of Senna. But he comes over as a noble enemy, reputation enhanced by the shot of him as a coffin bearer. The comedy villain is Balestre. The editing shows him as an officious, incompetent, blustering oaf, a figure of ridicule. Possibly the kindest thing I can say is that if this is accurate you can see why Max Mosley was a breath of fresh air. A scene where Piquet baits him in a drivers briefing is beautiful. Ron Dennis takes the role of the understanding, loyal and upstanding friend/father figure, and is rather likeable.
As far as plot is concerned, the key element is themoment in Suzuka 1989 where Prost turned in on Senna to rob him of the World Championship. Senna fights back, but is penalised by an incomprehensible stewards' decision. This of course gives rise to the next year where Senna takes out Prost much more dramatically but far more subtly. It still looks like a racing incident to me. And here is another change of perspective by time. What were shocking incidents then, having had years of Schumacher-ing and the recent distasteful demonstration of banger racing by Lewis Hamilton, now look mild and almost the norm. How times change.
The end is inevitable, and we all know it even though a voice inside hopes it won't happen. But the April weekend at Imola which took Senna and prior to that Ratzenberger, is high drama. Syd Watkins has often said how Senna seemed other worldly that weekend, and he seems it in this sequence, looking unfocused and disturbed. He was obviously upset by the dreadful FW16, and his belief that the Briatore and Walkinshaw-led Benneton team were cheating – surely inconceivable? But even more so by the awful accident to Ratzenberger and before that his friend Barrichello. All accidents are shown, and much of the aftermath, which I have some problems with, and feel is a bit voyeuristic. Possibly not as voyeuristic as when poor Martin Donnelly is earlier shown as a discarded rag doll on the track when his car dropped to pieces. Nonetheless, they illustrate again how time has passed. Whilst violent, they would, I am sure, all now be survivable. Even then many thought Senna was incredibly unlucky that debris struck him.
The final scene is the funeral in Brasil where an entire sport and a nation wept. Quite a few in the audience were close to weeping too, especialy when the filmaker showed the mourners with Senna in happier days.
As a Senna fan since 1983, I suppose it was inevitable I would like this film. The input of Ron Dennis, Syd Watkins, Sir Frank Williams and Vivienne Senna give it authenticity and honesty. It's certainly not the whole truth and in places it's the simplified, slightly distorted truth, though probably as Senna saw it, but it is a great film. When next year's Oscars come, this doesn't deserve best documentary. It deserves best picture.